The Importance Of Intention

The Torah's establishment of Cities of Refuge introduces the idea that intention determines the meaning of an action.

Commentary on Parashat Masei, Numbers 33:1 - 36:13

In this week’s Torah portion, the Torah addresses the issue of unintentional manslaughter. What is the appropriate penalty for someone who kills someone else unintentionally? Should there be any penalty at all?

Our portion discusses the establishment of six Cities of Refuge (Ir Miklat). These six cities were set aside as a permanent asylum. Anyone who unintentionally killed another person was permitted to flee to these cities. Once within their walls, the man-slayer was protected by law against any revenge or additional punishment.

In this way, the Torah balanced the need to insist that killing another person is objectively reprehensible, while also asserting a distinction between murder (which is deliberate) and manslaughter (which is not). Contemporary American law makes a similar distinction, mandating a different degree of severity to correspond to the different levels of responsibility due to intention and circumstance.

Three thousand years earlier, the Torah instituted those same legal distinctions based on different intentions. One way to understand the profundity of the Torah’s insight is to contrast the biblical law with other ancient standards. Ancient Greece, Sumer, Phoenecia, and other cultures all articulated a notion of asylum. In those civilizations, a murderer could flee to a local shrine and gain protection at the altar of the local deity. Whether or not the death had been intended was irrelevant to the power of the shrine to protect the murderer. After all, the pagan idol was no less holy, no less powerful, just because the murderer intended to kill his victim.

Not so the Torah’s law. The Torah asserts emphatically that the six Cities of Refuge would protect only the unintentional manslayer. The willful murderer was to be evicted, tried, and punished. No matter how powerful the divinity whose altar provided shelter, the Torah mandates that religion cannot interpose itself between a murderer and justice. Religion is a way of life, not a shield to violence.

Also diverging from other ancient law codes, the Torah does not determine the severity of punishment based on the status of the victim. Murdering a free man, woman, child, slave, or foreigner all resulted in the same penalty. Since all human beings reflect God’s image, all people deserve equal protection and possess equal worth.

The notion of a City of Refuge is not unique to the Torah. Nor is the notion of making legal distinctions for the same action. Nonetheless, in the law of the Cities of Refuge the Torah presents something breathtakingly new and exciting. What was revolutionary was the assertion that inner intention determines the meaning of an action. All intentional murders are abhorrent, but they are different from an accidental homicide. One who kills unintentionally is still guilty, but of a lesser offense. In fact, the Talmud (in Tractate Makkot) expanded upon this insight to provide for the release without penalty of those involved in complete accidents. Intention matters.

Unique among ancient law codes, the Torah consistently maintains its emphasis on kavvanah (intention). Indeed, our Jewish traditions continue that distinction to this day. Human beings represent something precious–the only permissible representation of God in the world. And what is most godly about us in our knowledge of good and evil. That awareness, and our ability to act on our own moral impulse, represents both an opportunity and a challenge. The challenge is to grow to reflect that Divine Image to the fullest extent we can. The opportunity is to create, through moral integrity and mitzvot (commandments), an environment in which God’s presence is readily apparent.

As this week’s reading says, “I, the Lord, dwell in the midst of the children of Israel.” To which Rashi (11th-century France) adds, “you shall not cause Me to abide in uncleanness.” Our actions must reflect our intentions, as we strive to make our intentions correspond, ever more closely, to God’s.

Reprinted with permission from American Jewish University.


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